Feature story

Crafting a better future

The handicrafts sector, and handloom weavers in particular, are at the centre of a project that aims to uplift artisans and their creative traditions

Mansukh Vankar (22) is typical and atypical, at the same time, of the more than 4.3 million handloom weavers in India. Like the majority of those trying to make a living from what is a difficult vocation, the 22-year-old from Kotay village in Gujarat’s Kutch district needs grit, creativity and a capacity for hard work to get by. Unlike most of them, he has the tools — not least the technology — the opportunity and the backing to maximise his chances of finding sustained success.

Be it with fashion trends or showcasing his work to a wider audience, Mr Vankar has the bit between his teeth as he sets about improving his lot. He has, for instance, been able to tap new customers from Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru through his Instagram handle, enabling him to double the money he made till about a year back. “I want to weave my very own unique pieces and I want to continue my family trade,” he says.

Mr Vankar is one among scores of traditional artisans across the country who can dream of leading a better life thanks to projects run by the Tata Trusts in the handicrafts sector. From Dhokra metalsmiths in Odisha and Kauna artisans in Manipur to weavers spread across seven Indian states, these projects are equipping artisans with the skills and the confidence to continue with their hereditary trade.

Rima Medak from Assam’s Dhemaji district is among the scores of weavers who have benefitted from Tata Trusts’ handloom interventions

The craft sector is the single largest source of employment in India after agriculture. It employs more than 7 million families, with the numbers largest in handloom weaving and allied activities. The handloom segment is largely decentralised and weavers tend to hail from vulnerable and weaker sections of society. Notably, women form a sizeable chunk of the weaver community, especially in India’s Northeastern region.

The large number of people involved and the hardscrabble existence that is the reality for many of them were the twin motivators for the Trusts’ to lend a hand to Indian handicrafts. Another potent reason is the strong potential for remunerative livelihood that the sector offers to artisans.

There is a history to it as well. The Trusts have been supporting art and craft since the days of Dorab Tata, the illustrious late chairman of the Tata group.

Art and culture have been a thematic sphere for the Trusts since 1995, with ‘institution building in the arts’ the overriding focus. In 2011-12, the Trusts put in place an ‘arts, crafts and culture’ portfolio. The mandate here is to protect and enhance the livelihoods and quality of living for artists, artisans and craftsmen and, by doing so, sustain India’s countless art and craft traditions.

Handloom products are crucial in the Indian context. India accounts for 95% of the global production of handwoven fabrics. In addition to high employment generation, handloom products are a significant source of foreign exchange earnings, pulling in export revenues of $356 million in 2017-18.

Tough business

Appeal and potential notwithstanding, the handloom segment faces a host of challenges. Low productivity, low wages, low literacy levels, rapacious middlemen and minimal formal financing have turned handloom weaving into a tough, even unprofitable, business. Over the years, economic factors and market demands have transformed the handicrafts sector. The handloom sector has switched from hand-spun fibres to completely mill spun, from natural fibres to largely artificial ones, from natural dyes to chemical, often napthol-based dyes, and from weaving in shorter runs to weaving large volumes in the same design. The reluctance of the younger generation from traditional artisan communities to continue in this field adds to the problem.

It’s easy to understand, then, why the total number of weavers in India has declined from 6.5 million in 1995 to 4.3 million in 2010. Falling incomes and exploitative working conditions are mainly to blame. Also, handloom weaving demands long and patient hours of labour and this often leads to health issues among the artisans.

The Tata Trusts are attempting to change the situation through a direct intervention (DI) programme involving six handloom-weaving clusters in Assam, Odisha and Nagaland. Artisans from the clusters will be taught skills that can be employed to fashion fabrics for designers in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru or even Paris.

Incubating design

Under the direct intervention project, the Trusts have established an incubation and design centre (IDC) in the Kamrup cluster in Assam. Two more such centres — in Dimapur in Nagaland and in Maniabandha in Odisha — are being readied for launch. The success of the programme in the six selected clusters should provide the necessary impetus for the Trusts to roll out the programme in 30 additional centres across India.

The larger goal of the DI programme is to engage with about 3,000 weavers as well as pre-loom and post-loom service providers over a five-year period. The agenda also includes the nurturing of 300 microenterprises owned and operated by weavers or service providers.

The Handloom School in Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh is yet another initiative supported by the Trusts. Conceptualised by Women Weave, a nonprofit, it provides training in traditional and modern handloom weaving techniques to help artisans gain a broader perspective.

The idea is to help handloom artisans become weaver-entrepreneurs and engage independently with customers. Mr Vankar, who completed his residential learning course at the Handloom School in 2015, is an example. He used to earn 200 for weaving a 2.5mt-long shawl and could barely feed his family. Today, his monthly income has doubled to 15,000. Of the 80 students who have passed out from the Handloom School till date, 12 have launched their own business.

Learning to change

Kabita Kalita (left) and her friends at the Kamrup Incubation and Design centre in Assam are aiming to make their mark as weaver-entrepreneurs

“If I had received the training [in entrepreneurship development] earlier, I would have thought twice about getting married.” Such a statement is bound to invite raised eyebrows, especially if it comes from a 38-year-old woman based in rural India. Jyotsna Golita realises this as soon as her friends burst into laughter.

Ms Golita is one among 32 students in the first batch at the Incubation and Design Centre (IDC) in the Kamrup cluster of Assam. The IDCs are at the core of the Tata Trusts’ direct intervention programme to support traditional Indian crafts and the people keeping it alive.

Located in clusters close to where the weavers live, the centres are primed to take a holistic approach towards the trade as a whole, and the course syllabus has been designed to help participants become weaver-entrepreneurs and weaver-designers.

The teaching covers production, supply chain management, marketing and social media exposure, basic accounting, design and business communication. There is more than all this for Ms Golita and her friends, who are just as excited by the opportunity to use computers and learn about the world outside. “It is important to understand computers,” says Kabita Kalita (42), a participant.

Bringing about attitudinal change tops the programme’s agenda. Each cluster will have design professionals from the National Institute of Design or the National Institute of Fashion Technology. Unlike earlier initiatives in the handloom space, the Trusts have restricted their role to that of a facilitator. “Our objective is to help the weavers find sustainable livelihoods for themselves by enabling them and exposing them to the slow fashion market,” says Sharda Gautam, who heads the crafts initiative at the Trusts.

Handloom projects have previously focused separately on different actors in the value chain such as dyers, weavers and post-loom services. This approach has often been the main reason behind the failure of such interventions. “Each weaver has at least eight people dependent on him,” says Sharda Gautam, who heads the crafts portfolio at the Trusts. “Unless a holistic approach is adopted, it will not work. That’s why we will be looking at the entire value chain.”

Support for NGOs

Direct interventions aside, the Trusts are also backing organisations such as Dastkar Andhra, which works with pre-loom workers in the Krishna and Guntur districts of Andhra Pradesh, and the Srijani Foundation, which is operational in the Siwan, Samastipur and Nalanda districts of Bihar. These two initiatives have benefitted nearly 800 people.

The Tata Trusts also support the conservation of weaving and embroidery techniques, especially those in danger of disappearing. Preservation of dying crafts is done through in-depth documentation of various aspects of the crafts. The Trusts supported the nonprofit, Shrujan, to document and disseminate the embroidery traditions of Kutch through a moving library in Bhuj in Gujarat.

The Trusts also support Kauna craftspeople in the Thoubal district of Manipur. Kauna is a water reed that is ideal to create baskets, mats and other products (See Basketful of progress ). The story is similar with the Dhokra craft form, which is a 4,000-year-old metal-casting skill famous for its enchanting folk motifs and primitive simplicity.

The message behind these and other efforts of the Trusts in this sphere is very simple: artisans and their talent can thrive if the circumstances are right.

Mansukh Vankar from Kotay village in Gujarat’s Kutch district has leveraged social media to tap new markets across India